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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Three Rivers
New York-Chicago
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/2001l13a/2001l13a.html

It's 12:22 p.m. on Thursday, December 13, 2001, and I've just arrived at Penn Station, New York, where I will be boarding the Three Rivers on my way to Chicago. This will be my first long-distance trip on Amtrak since last February, and I am very much looking forward to it.

I left my home in Teaneck at 11:22 a.m., walked to Route 4, and took the "Spanish van" to the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal. These vans, which operate frequently, are designed primarily to transport Spanish-speaking people from Paterson to New York City, with signs in both Spanish and English. Upon entering the van, one is greeted by the friendly sign: "This bus is here to serve you. Please do not destroy it" (or, in Spanish: "No lo destruya"). The van is, of course, open to all passengers, and it does provide a convenient and inexpensive means of traveling from Teaneck to New York. And despite the rather ominous sign, the van appeared to be in good condition, with only some litter on the floor.

I took the A train down to Penn Station, and walked into the Metropolitan Lounge (now renamed Club Acela). The woman at the counter was a little surprised to see me, since my train would be boarding in only a few minutes. I noticed that they now have computers in the lounge, and attempted to use one, but was unable to get onto the Internet.

At 12:35 p.m., the departure of the Three Rivers was announced, first in the Metropolitan Lounge, and a minute later in the main waiting room. The stairways leading from the upper level to the track were closed for reconstruction, so all "guests" had to board from the lower level. I walked down to the platform, where I was greeted by my attendant, Maria, and asked whether I was in Room 3 or Room 8. Although the sleeping car was sold out, most passengers were boarding in Philadelphia, and only two standard bedrooms would be occupied leaving New York. I put my belongings in my Room 3 and walked down the platform to record the consist.

Today's Three Rivers is pulled by E-60 engine #609 and includes three Amfleet II coaches, an Horizon dinette, the Viewliner sleeper Southern View (#62037), an operating baggage car, an MHC car, and another baggage car at the rear. We left Penn Station on time at 12:50 p.m. Soon after we departed, I walked through the coaches, where I found only about 50 passengers. Most of the passengers were traveling to destinations between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and were assigned to the first car, which had been retrofitted with new blue seats.

One thing I noticed is that most Amtrak employees now wear photo ID badges around their neck - - apparently a security precaution implemented in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Other than that, I did not notice any increased security on the train. At no time was my luggage searched in any way, nor was I ever asked to present a photo ID. (Indeed, I never was asked present a photo ID even when I purchased my ticket for this trip. I made the reservation over the phone, and obtained the ticket from a machine at Penn Station.)

For some reason, our stop in Newark lasted for eight minutes, and we departed at 1:13 p.m., five minutes late. Our ride from Newark to Trenton was quite slow. We were passed at 1:25 p.m. by an Acela Express train (Train #2159, scheduled to leave New York at 1:00 p.m.), and about 25 minutes later by an Acela Regional train (Train #185, scheduled to leave New York at 1:05 p.m.) It seems that our train is now given by Amtrak the exact opposite treatment than that formerly accorded by the Pennsylvania Railroad to its flagship train, the Broadway Limited. We are viewed by Amtrak as a low-priority train on the Northeast Corridor, and all other trains are permitted to pass us along the route.

I had brought along a deli sandwich for lunch, so I took the sandwich into the dinette car and ate it there, along with some complimentary Seven- Up that was made available to sleeping car passengers in the rear of the sleeper. I also took my laptop computer into the lounge car and started writing these memoirs.

The laptop computer is a story in itself. I had purchased this computer about three and a half years ago, and it had been working quite well until this past Monday. But on Monday evening, when I turned the computer on, it asked for a "system disk," and did not recognize the C drive. I showed the computer to several friends, all of whom felt that it probably could not be restored to operating condition without reformatting the C drive. I did not want to do this, since I would thereby lose all the data I had stored on the computer, and some of it had not been backed up. But, on the other hand, I wanted to have access to a laptop computer for my train trip to Chicago.

The solution that I devised was to boot up the computer from the A drive, and then run WordPerfect 5.0, which is small enough to fit on a single floppy disk. I haven't had to resort to this method in a number of years, but I knew that it would enable me to use my computer onboard the train and to write the story of the trip in my usual manner. I was glad that I was able to locate a disk on which I had previously stored the WordPerfect 5.0 program -- an ancient program which can no longer be obtained commercially.

We finally arrived at Trenton at 2:08 p.m., fifteen minutes late. It had taken us one hour and 18 minutes to get from New York to Trenton -- barely faster than the NJ Transit local trains which cover the route! Our stop in Trenton lasted for only two minutes, during which time a couple boarded our car, occupying one of the standard bedrooms.

As we approached Philadelphia, I heard on the radio a request that a mechanical person meet the train on our arrival in Philadelphia, since a door on the third coach would not close. When we arrived at the 30th Street Station at 2:41 p.m., sixteen minutes late, I detrained and walked upstairs to make a phone call. I noticed about 50 people waiting to board the train. After a few minutes, I decided to return to the train. The northern stairway was roped off, with an attendant stationed at the top of the stairs, so I went to the opposite side and walked down that stairway instead.

On the track opposite ours, a long line of express cars and RoadRailers were being assembled, with switch engine #521 assigned to pull the cars forward and attach them to what now had become the rear of our train. (Due to the track configuration in Philadelphia, our train reverses direction at the 30th Street Station.) In the meantime, our electric engine had been taken off and replaced (at the opposite end of the train) by Genesis diesel engines #137 and #178, both painted in the new Acela colors. The process of assembling the cars and coupling them to our train took quite some time. In all, there were eight express cars and three RoadRailers added to the train in Philadelphia. I noticed that some of the express cars were labeled "Express Trak" and had a panel at one end which stated that the car was "satellite controlled." Exactly what that means I'm not sure; perhaps the reference is to GPS tracking.

The lights finally went on again, and we pulled out of the station at 3:27 p.m. We were 27 minutes late, and had lost an additional 11 minutes during our lengthy stop in Philadelphia. Quite a few passengers had boarded the train in Philadelphia, and nearly every room in the sleeper was now occupied. I walked through the coaches and found that there were now about 100 passengers on board, about evenly distributed between the three coaches.

The woman occupying the room in back of mine was from Seattle. She had traveled from Seattle to Miami by train, took a cruise from there, and was now returning home. She related a number of incidents that had occurred during her prior Amtrak travels, including one instance when she requested the attendant to make up her room, whereupon the attendant refused, stating that she should do it herself!

We now proceeded along the famous Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, passing a number of historic stations. At 4:21 p.m., between Coatesville and Parkesburg, we passed the eastbound Three Rivers. That train is scheduled to arrive at Paoli at 4:13 p.m., so it is running late, but only by a few minutes. I briefly walked into the lounge car to observe the "smoking period" between 4:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. (Since there is no separate smoking lounge on this train, smoking is allowed in the lounge car for two designated half-hour periods only.) The front half of the car was filled with smokers, and the smell of the smoke permeated the entire car. I quickly returned to my room.

I briefly stepped off the train at Lancaster, where we arrived at 4:45 p.m. Only two people got on the train here, both in the coaches, but the conductor opened the door of my sleeper to step out onto the platform and have a brief smoke. Right after we departed Lancaster, I heard on the scanner the conductor asking permission to make an unscheduled stop at Elizabethtown to let off a passenger who should have detrained at Lancaster. That passenger would then be able to take a local Keystone train back to Lancaster. Permission was granted, but I wondered how this incident occurred, as the train is supposed to stop at Lancaster only to receive passengers. (The conductor subsequently told me that the passenger in question had missed a previous train and was permitted to ride our train instead.) Moreover, the train to which this passenger would be connecting, Keystone Train #616, was scheduled to depart Harrisburg at 5:25 p.m., and it appeared that we would arrive Harrisburg before then. But the engineer said that the connection would be tight, so the decision was made to stop at Elizabethtown. Our stop lasted for nearly two minutes, since the conductor escorted the passenger under the tracks and up to the eastbound platform.

As I had figured, though, we arrived in Harrisburg at 5:24 p.m. Train #616 was right across the platform from our train, and the connection could certainly have been made here (especially if we didn't lose the time that our stop had taken). I briefly walked upstairs and went down towards the front of the platform, where I reboarded the train. Many passengers were standing out on the platform for their smoking break. Eight more Roadrailers were added to our train in Harrisburg, but the stop ended up taking only 17 minutes, rather than the scheduled 20 minutes, and when we departed at 5:42 p.m., we were 17 minutes late.

About 6:30 p.m., I went to the dinette and obtained a salisbury steak tray meal, with potatoes and vegetables, which I ate at one of the tables in the dinette. The meal tasted okay, but the overall ambience of the car does not begin to compare with the experience of being served a meal in a normal diner.

Our next station stop was Lewistown, where we arrived at 6:59 p.m. The Broadway Limited Route Guide that I had brought along states that this station is the oldest PRR building still extant! Interestingly, the two sets of tracks that remain are some distance away from the station. Obviously, there had once been tracks adjacent to the station platform that have since been removed.

For most of the evening, I remained in my room, reading the December issue of TRAINS magazine, which had some very interesting articles. I walked through the train several times, but there were few people in the lounge car. For a short period of time, I turned out all the lights and watched the scenery go by from my darkened room.

We made a brief stop at the small Amshack at Huntingdon at 7:37 p.m. We then proceeded ahead to our next stop, Altoona, where we arrived at 8:18 p.m. There is a modern, relatively unattractive station here. About ten people got off here, and an equal number of passengers boarded the train.

I knew that the stop would have to last for a few minutes, but it seemed to last longer than required by the station work. Finally, at 8:27 p.m., I heard on the scanner the conductor calling for an ambulance. One of the passengers in the coaches had developed chest pains, and the ambulance was needed to take him to the hospital. Obviously, we would be delayed somewhat by this medical emergency.

I didn't want to get in the way of personnel responding to the emergency, so I decided not to walk into the coaches, but I did go into the lounge car, from where I observed the ambulance arrive (accompanied by a fire truck) about ten minutes later. A man sitting in the lounge car told me that the passenger involved was a young man (in his 30s) who was standing by the service counter in the lounge clutching his chest in pain. The attendant escorted him to a coach, where he sat down, and then asked the conductor to call for help. Finally, the passenger was taken off the train, and we departed Altoona at 8:42 p.m., forty minutes late.

We would soon be approaching the famous Horseshoe Curve, so I decided once again to turn off the lights in my room to get a better view of the scenery. On our way up to the curve, we passed three eastbound Norfolk Southern freight trains, all with engines both in front and in back. I was able to watch our train snake around the Horseshoe Curve (although I was a little surprised that no announcement of this feature was made to the entire train).

After we went through the tunnel at the summit of the grade, I went back to the lounge car and obtained a bag of potato chips and a cup of tea. I remained in the lounge car until our next station stop, Johnstown, where we arrived at 9:35 p.m. I then returned to my room. The remainder of the trip to Pittsburgh was uneventful. The last room in our car (Room #9) was finally filled when two passengers boarded in Greensburg, from where we departed at 10:30 p.m.

We pulled into the Pittsburgh station at 11:08 p.m. Here, the onboard crew changes -- a rather unusual feature of this train (the crew is based in Pittsburgh and works Pittsburgh to Chicago, Chicago to New York, and New York to Pittsburgh). I stepped off the train and walked down the platform, where I noted that a private car, named Silver Spring and lettered for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was parked on the opposite track. The conductor indicated that we would be spending only about ten minutes at the station, so I decided not to head down into the station itself. And he was, indeed, correct, as we departed Pittsburgh at 11:21 p.m. Our station stop had lasted only 13 minutes (instead of the 30 minutes alloted in the timetable), and we were now only 16 minutes late. A large number of passengers detrained in Pittsburgh, and only a few passengers boarded the train here.

I now decided that it was time to go to sleep. The new attendant walked by and offered to pull down the upper berth, so I let her do this, even though it is something that I could easily have done myself. One very nice feature of the Viewliner sleepers is that one can sit comfortably in the seats on the lower level even when the upper berth is lowered. (The same could be said about the Superliner sleepers, but I never sleep in the upper berth on a Superliner, as it lacks windows.) I quickly updated these memoirs, got undressed, and climbed into bed.

Once I had climbed into the upper berth, I noticed that the car was positioned "backwards." I prefer to sleep with my head in the back of the train and my feet in front, so that I can look forward out of the window as the train is moving. However, my bed was set up in the opposite manner. Ordinarily, I would simply move the bedding over so that my head would be in the back. But the bed and bedding in the upper berth of the Viewliner cars is configured so that the head end is wider than the foot end. I was thinking of moving it nonetheless, despite the fact that it would not fit properly on the bed, but finally decided that it wasn't worth the effort. So I slept with my head facing backwards.

It took me some time to get to sleep, but I slept through our stops at Youngstown and Akron. I did wake up for the stop at Fostoria, which we left at 4:33 a.m., and I was also awake for our stop at Garrett, Indiana at 6:15 a.m. Garrett is no longer a passenger stop, but the train stops here, I believe, to change crews.

I finally woke up for good when we arrived at Nappanee at 6:55 a.m. We were just short of half an hour late. Since there is considerable make-up time built into the schedule, we should be arriving in Chicago about half an hour early. I heard the attendant waking up other passengers, so I decided to get out of bed and take a shower. The water in the shower was quite warm --indeed, at one point, it got too hot, and I had to lower the temperature.

As I was finishing my shower, about 7:15 a.m., I heard an announcement over the public address system that this would be the last call for service in the lounge car. It was now over two hours prior to our scheduled arrival time in Chicago, yet the lounge car was about to close down! This is a very annoying practice of Amtrak. The crew is expected to have accounted for everything and be ready to jump off the train as soon as it arrives in Chicago, so the car has to be closed early, thus inconveniencing those passengers who want to eat later. I quickly got dressed and walked over to the next car, where I obtained orange juice, Cheerios and coffee for breakfast. There were two attendants behind the service counter, and the attendant who served me gave me two individual servings of Cheerios, pointing out that the portions provided are rather small. He did ask me to sign a voucher, though, something that I was not asked to do last night for dinner. I was not really ready to eat yet, so I took the food back to my room, took out my computer, and updated these memoirs.

It was a dark, dreary, rainy morning, and the scenery on this line approaching Chicago rates close to the worst that you can encounter on Amtrak (the only thing that comes close is the section of the Northeast Corridor north of Philadelphia). At about 7:50 a.m. Eastern Time, it finally started to get a little light out. Then, at 7:13 a.m. (Central Time), we made a brief stop at Hammond-Whiting, Indiana, our final stop before Chicago. Soon, the conductor announced that we should be arriving at Union Station in Chicago at about 8:00 a.m., which would be 25 minutes early.

I now ate my breakfast. Ordinarily, I would have gone back to the lounge car to eat, but I didn't see anyone else sitting there and assumed that the car was being cleaned and was therefore closed to passengers. So I ate in my room. By now, the coffee that I had obtained an hour earlier was not really hot, so I spilled it out and got a new cup of hot coffee from the machine in the back of the sleeper. I also picked up an apple cinnamon pastry from a selection at the rear of the car. The attendant had delivered a copy of USA Today to my room, so I read the paper while eating my meal. The lead article was about intrusive searches at airport security checkpoints, and it was nice to know that you can avoid all that hassle by taking the train.

At 7:42 a.m., we pulled into the wye just south of Chicago Union Station. The express and RoadRailer cars at the rear of our train were cut off, and we then proceeded ahead a considerable distance to the next switch. Then, at 7:48 a.m., we began our back-up move to the station. Of course, we proceeded at a rather slow pace, and not until 8:02 a.m. did we come to our final stop on Track 24. We had arrived 23 minutes early! As we passed the freight cars that had been cut off of our train, I was able to record the numbers of three of the RoadRailers that had been added in Harrisburg. I also observed the consist of the Kentucky Cardinal which had just arrived on the adjacent Track 26. The train was, as might be expected, composed of a mish- mash of equipment that was being brought back from Beech Grove. Passengers were accommodated in an ex- Santa Fe hi-level coach, and included in the consist - - somewhat to my surprise -- was a Heritage coach lettered for, and ordinarily assigned to, the Adirondack.

I detrained and gave the attendant a $5 tip in recognition of the friendly attitude and superior service provided by both attendants who were assigned to my car. (I might add that the attendant did not demand that I leave my room in the morning so that she could make it up before we arrived in Chicago -- an annoying practice often followed by sleeping car attendants.) I went into the station and called my cousin Debbie to inform her that I would be taking the 8:35 a.m. Metra Fox Lake train to Edgebrook. My cousin had indicated to me that it would be most convenient if I could take this train (rather than the next train, scheduled to leave at 9:35 a.m.), and the early arrival of the Three Rivers made this possible. I purchased my ticket and boarded the train on Track 7. Although the train was not full, almost every pair of seats in the front section of my car was occupied by at least one person, and a considerable number of people boarded at the various intermediate stations. When we arrived at the Edgebrook station at 9:02 a.m., three minutes late, my cousin was there to pick me up.

Although generally uneventful, my trip to Chicago on the Three Rivers was very pleasant. I'm looking forward to my return journey on the Capitol Limited on Sunday evening.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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